That’s what they called them. The word appeared in reviews in newspapers in every city, not that the circus stuck around long enough for the performers to read them. But they heard anyway, clips sent from adoring fans or proud family.
Rose’s mother, Jackie, would send only the good bits, most especially the good bits about her daughter’s performance. But it was the one who got no letters from home who was the real star. The magician.
His given name was John, but he went by “the Doctor” onstage, often fixing broken things as part of his act. He had been with the circus since he was a child. It was home to him, this roaming blue boxcar on a long circus train. No one quite knew where he came from, just that the village was called Gallifrey and that he was the last of his family line. No one knew much about him in general, including how he did his tricks. For all the other performers and managers and audience knew, it was real magic, which made him all the more whimsical and charming. He never let anyone get too close though. Well, until Rose.
Rose was an acrobat. She could twirl on the lyra, swing from the trapeze, backflip through a flaming obstacle course, and when required, dance through the air with only twisting satin ribbons for support. She found an unexpected cheerleader in the magician. He claimed it was because their schedules aligned perfectly so that he was in the right place at the right time, and he had an elaborate musing on how life was funny like that, putting you right where you need to be. But she noticed he didn’t show the same attentions to her fellow acrobats or the flame-throwing twins or the gorgeous fortune-teller or the lion tamer’s busty assistant.
“TYLER!” her grumpy old trainer bellowed from the ground.
She shook her head and wiped the smug grin off her face. It was her turn at the platform, and 50 feet in the air, there was no room in the mind for schoolgirl crushes on boys. Only rhythm and perfection.
Physics. That’s all it was. Physics physics physics.
John repeated his mantra to himself as he paced backstage. Simple science.
Yet when he performed, it was more than that. It was the slow rolling in of a storm on the horizon, gradually building with a grand thunderclap of a finale, a bow, a flap of his coat as he turned, and he would find himself backstage again. It all happened so routine, he hardly questioned the magic of it anymore. Like arriving at the office every morning, day after day, with no particular memory of the drive there.
To be honest, it was all getting a bit dull. He loved his job, the thrill of the performance… and the circus was his home, after all. But it wasn’t enough. He tried learning new tricks, experimenting with chemistry and mechanics and some ill-fated zoological illusions (how does one misplace a horse in a tent?), but as intellectually stimulating as it all was, he needed more.
He was almost envious of them, the couples who held tight to each other as the suspense in his act built. He would sometimes pick an eager young man from the audience, just to allow the lad a chance to impress his date. On rare occasion, he’d recognize them years later; couples that had been newly dating when he performed for them long ago, when he was but a lanky teenager, now brought their children to his shows.
He spotted one little girl on the front row, between two adults he recognized as Sheffield’s most loyal patrons of the circus. A flourish of the hand, a loose thread from his sleeve pulled, and suddenly a bouquet of daisies was hers. The spark returned for a moment in his heart as she showed her parents and he took in their delight and gratitude. But he sighed as the spark faded with the dying of the applause: the finale, the chattering as the audience made their way out of the tent, and the click of the lights turning off, set by set, from the rigging.
When everyone was gone, he pushed back the curtain and stepped out on to the empty stage in the empty tent. His lean shoulders slumped. How long could he keep up the awe and wonder for the crowd if he felt none of it himself anymore?
“You ok?” Rose’s voice sliced through the melancholy.
“Hallo there! What brings such a lovely lady to my tent at such an hour?” He winked, standing up straighter and pasting on a smile.
“I mean it.” She approached the stage and hopped up with the effortless grace of a professional acrobat.
“How are you?” She scanned his features, attempting to read something there.
“You know me. I’m always alright.” He raised an eyebrow at her concern.
“I don’t think you are.” She sighed. “Please tell me.”
He let his shoulders slump again and sat down on the edge of the stage. She followed and sat close. Her hand on his knee made his heart skip a beat.
“I think I’ve been doing this too long.” He swallowed and looked out to the empty seats. He couldn’t bear to admit it to her face despite her pleading eyes. “I still love it, but it’s not the same. Same tricks, same laughs, same routine.”
“What about some new tricks? Have you tried changing it up a bit?”
“Yeah, everything I attempt, I just don’t have the heart to make it work.”
“You’re always saying it’s just simple science.” She frowned. A corner of his mouth turned up, but he refused to meet her narrowed eyes, looking down at his lap instead. “Wait, are you saying it’s more than that?”
He took her hand in his and traced her palm. Static sparked between them at his touch, causing them both to inhale sharply.
“Sometimes, I think it might be more. I know it’s crazy, and maybe it’s a sign I’ve truly lost my way when I start believing my own tricks. But there’s something special, something extra, that usually makes them work that seems to have gone missing. Except…”
She bumped his shoulder with hers. “Except what?”
“When I’m with you,” he mumbled, “I believe I can do anything. When I think of you… they work.”
Rose couldn’t hide her Cheshire grin at that. “Really?” she preened. At that moment it was she who was the magician, charming him with those long eyelashes and her chin tucked into her shoulder demurely.
They were inches apart, if he could just close the distance… he leaned in and her eyes fluttered closed.
“Oi!” the stage manager raised a clipboard at them. “You two shoulda been back on the train half an hour ago! Out!”
The couple hid laughs as they stood, brushing off their clothes.
“Sorry, Graham,” they answered in unison.
Despite their lateness, they took their time walking back under the stars.
The mat thudded in perfect synchronicity as the acrobats rehearsed.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Rose settled her shoulders, grounding herself before her next roundoff. In performance this would be on a steep slope, but for now, the teamwork was the important part. She’d had her share of spotlights and solo work, but there was no room for stars in the circus’s acrobatics team, as their trainer constantly reminded them. Every day was a new chance to prove themselves… or fail. As such, the environment was a competitive one, despite the friendliness on the surface.
To be honest, Rose was getting exhausted by it. She’d only been with this circus a few years, but getting to know more of the performers had gotten her imagination churning about what a solo act would look like. Or if not solo, just one out of this sweaty, crowded tent. A double act, perhaps.
“Again!” the trainer bellowed. Rose sighed and took her place in line.
“Come one, come all! Circus Tardis, starring the Doctor in a special Valentine’s Day show! Bring your special someone!”
The posters and fliers were everywhere around the city. Even for a holiday show, the managers had gone all out. They had one week to prepare and John was at his wit’s end. Ever since his near-kiss with Rose last month, he’d been on edge. Nothing he tried seemed good enough. His anxiety was compounded by the fact that she was most definitely going to be in the audience. She had a spotlight solo in the opener, and after that, would be free the rest of the evening. Considering his act was late in the night, she would have plenty of time to change and enjoy the rest of the performances.
Once upon a time, he would have sulked that she’d probably be found on the arm of some pretty boy: that juggler Adam or the dangerous, trick-riding Jimmy and his motorcycle gang. But now, John had no doubt that Rose felt the same way he did. They had grown closer and closer over the last several months.
He smirked to himself as he tried to count up the number of times they had almost kissed. Well, he may be booked this Valentine’s Day, but he would find a way to make it special for her. And get in that kiss.
He ran through his new illusion again. Some of the Valentine’s show changes were simply cosmetic, like changing the bouquet of daisies to roses, picking a couple from the audience to assist him instead of two random strangers, changing his signature brown suit and tan coat to a black tux and a red-satin-lined coat. But this new illusion, the finale, he was struggling with. And there was no way he could ask for a volunteer with this one without ruining the effect. No, he needed someone who knew what they were doing, someone with stage presence. Suddenly Rose’s whole team of acrobats seemed more attractive than a solo show. He usually loved the independence, but sometimes having support sounded better and better.
Rose lay awake, too distracted to sleep. The glowing stars she had taped to the ceiling of the train car were a poor substitute for the real thing, but in London, it was as good as it got. The managers were putting them up in a nice hotel as a post-Valentine’s show reward, but until then, they were still in their normal quarters aboard the train. Home.
She didn’t mind. She had her own compartment: a little bed, a sink, a wardrobe, a window where she could watch the world speed by. It wasn’t nearly as grand as John’s boxcar, which he had done up in steampunk flare, mostly from things he had found in his lifetime of travels. But it would do. Certainly much better than the bunk beds the teenage performers shared.
She’d been one of them, though it seemed like so long ago now. She’d done her GCSEs while working as much as she could in her local gymnastics and acrobatics club and competing and showcasing every chance she got. She knew she’d never be an Olympian—it wasn’t that kind of gym—but lyra and trapeze had captured her heart early on anyway. She auditioned all summer, swinging from silver hoops while drowning out the sound of her mother’s nagging that she keep her focus on starting her A-levels in the fall just in case. But Circus Tardis and its handsome young magician had been a perfect fit. She had spent a single year in the rookie bunks, and if she did say so herself, rose to the upper ranks at lightning pace.
But it was still a team, as her trainer reminded her. And as grateful as she was to be living her dream, part of her longed for more independence. A chance to shine on her own, to prove she could be more than a background character in someone else’s show.
She sat up in bed, resigned that she wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. She fished a notebook and pen out of her drawer and began sketching.
By 2 a.m., she had a rough outline of a costume, a near-complete draft of choreography to one of her favorite songs, and a stage name: Bad Wolf. It was fierce but familiar, whimsical yet powerful, mysterious yet simple enough to remember.
She awoke in mid-morning with the pen by her side and the notebook on her lap. She shook her head at the silliness of her middle-of-the-night self and put away her foolish dreams. No time for that now. She had tumbling practice to get to.
The night of the big London show was here. Valentine’s Day.
Dust floated up in clouds as the horses paraded in time with the music from the marching band. The daredevil motorcycle riders revved their engines, heightening the thrill of the audience. Adrenaline and sweat and greasy carnival food filled the air. The heat of the lights and the warming bodies made it almost tangible until …. CLICK. The lights switched off. All fell silent. The cold night air rushed in as the back flap of the tent, hidden behind the stage backdrop, was tied back to allow the performers to sneak in.
A spotlight clicked on. HONK! A clown and his partner, an extraordinarily talented little dog, did their routine, whetting the audience’s appetite for the show. More clowns came out and had the audience laughing harder and harder, until gradually all the lights had come on and the trumpets blasted.
The Doctor got shivers every night as the opening music played. He loved this life. As much as it had become a routine. Perhaps the answer to his melancholy was right in front of his eyes. If she said yes, that is.
Just as the thought crossed his mind, he spotted Rose mounting the platform for her first trapeze swing. She powdered her hands and looked down, behind the stage backdrop. She was looking for him! He grinned and waved. She returned it and, it was hard to tell, but might have even given him a little wink.
She faced the task in front of her and, when it was her turn, grabbed the bar without fear, years of training kicking in as it did every night, allowing her to swing out over the audience with ease. He couldn’t see all of her movements, but he could see enough to note she had mastered a difficult flip she had been working on for months. He’d have to remember to congratulate her on it later. Maybe even congratulate her, he thought, remembering his grand plan to kiss her before the night was through. And ask her a daring question.
Kisses and grand plans would have to wait. The opener was winding down and he had a job to get to.
Rose watched from the edge of her seat as the Doctor waltzed through his special Valentine’s Day routine with all the charm and energy she had come to love in him. Yes, she could admit it to herself. She was in love. It was a frightening thought, because aside from a few interrupted romantic moments, she couldn’t really be sure he felt the same. Sure, they flirted endlessly, but he hadn’t made any promises. Perhaps he simply wanted her as a friend and the near-kisses were all in her head…
He spotted her in the audience, hiding in plain sight and normal clothes, and his stage smile softened into authenticity.
“For this next trick, I will need a volunteer. You there!” Rose was shocked to see him beckon in her direction. “Would you be so kind as to join me onstage?”
Oh, she could never say no to his outstretched hand and expectant gaze. She remembered to stay in character or it would ruin the whole show. If she showed that they knew each other, the audience would think she had been a plant and lose the magic.
“Me? Oh!” she laughed. “Alright!”
She followed his lead, putting all of her focus into following his instructions and not what the managers would say. Surely, they wouldn’t have agreed to this in advance, and she was sure he’d be hearing about his choice of “volunteers” later.
“What’s your name, Miss?”
“Rose.” She gave the audience a tight wave and was grateful she had dressed up a bit for Valentine’s despite not expecting to be seen on stage.
“Rose, beautiful name. And that’s a beautiful dress.”
She blushed. “Thanks.”
“Now, can you hold this hoop? Show it to the audience, all sides of it. There you go.” He raised an eyebrow to the audience. “Now, my lovely assistant, will you kindly lay it on the ground and step into the hoop?”
She did as asked. “Here?”
“Yes, now, don’t worry because you will only be invisible to the human eye for just a minute. And there’s a reward for you in the end.” He winked.
Oh, she wanted to return that with something much more saucy than she was able to at the moment. But playing the ignorant volunteer, she only laughed in excitement.
“If you will,” he instructed, “in your own time, any pace comfortable to you, just pull the hoop over your head.”
“Like this?” She raised the hoop as slowly and suggestively as she could over her body and sent him one of her signature eyelash flutters that made him gape like a fish.
“Guh...” He swallowed. “Yep. Yes. Just like that.”
The part of her body below the hoop disappeared from view of the audience. He took the hoop from her hands and raised it above her head. When she was completely out of sight, he waved his whirring silver wand. She could hear its signature sound above her. It was clear from the audience’s ooos and ahhhs that the illusion was working, despite the view of black satin all around her inside the hoop’s lining.
It occurred to her, as he monologued to the audience, that she had no idea how she had found herself inside a satin bag taller than her when just minutes ago she had inspected the hoop herself. She was sure it was simple science, as he always said, but his refusal to say more on the subject the other night had her questioning just how much she knew about this mysterious friend she found her heart captivated by. The satin turned from luxurious and sensual to claustrophobic as the thought hit her: She had just trusted him, so blindly. Not just stepping onstage, into this hoop, but enough to fall for him…
Rose nearly shrieked. Something was touching the top of her foot and her ankle. She kicked it away and heard a rustle, like fabric. She remembered his words about a reward. Mustering all the courage in her body, she bent down to get a better look. Just as she did, she heard the hoop clink to the floor… above her?
“Rose?” She heard Graham’s voice. “John’s got you on a trapdoor platform. Pick up the flowers and stand up so I can get you back up there.”
“Oh! Thanks. You know, a little warning would have been…” Her scolding was drowned out by applause as the hoop floated above the stage, seemingly at John’s command. Rose lowered the hoop and climbed out, delightedly clutching what was revealed to be a bouquet of red roses. The audience thundered their applause for the Doctor, which only annoyed Rose further that she hadn’t been given even a brief heads-up from him. He looked entirely too pleased with himself. Worse, seeing the fire in her eyes only made his grin spread.
“You’ve been a wonderful assistant… Rose, was it? Well, there is no lovelier rose on this stage than you.”
She curtsied to the audience and turned to the stairs.
“Oh, wait, not that way!” He stopped her. “We’d like to thank you for participating with a backstage tour. If you’d step this way, please.” He gestured to the wings where Graham was impatiently waiting with his clipboard.
She didn’t have to fake her surprise, though her delight was more at the opportunity to slap her magician sooner than anticipated for putting her through that mess of confusion. Well, slap was rather harsh. Just on the shoulder. With a genuine thank you for the roses. They were gorgeous, after all.
“Out this way, Rose,” Graham rushed her to the stage door that led out the back of the tent. He handed her her nicest coat. “Here, put this on. Cold out there tonight. Your bags are already at the hotel.”
Upon the sight of a horse-drawn carriage, it took a moment to remember that the managers had given them a week off at a posh hotel in the city and that she had packed not 12 hours ago before rehearsal. This morning seemed like days ago. She hardly had time to wonder how someone had broken into her room to acquire her bags and coat. The managers must have been in on John’s plan. Graham sent her a knowing smile.
“Enjoy yourselves, love. You’re only young once.”
“Thank you, Graham.”
He nodded and headed back inside with his clipboard, already shouting at John to get a move on. The ol’ softie.
As she approached the carriage, she heard the usual roar of applause and calls for an encore John never gave. In a complete contrast to his slumped shoulders following recent performances, he bounded out the door behind her and whooped.
“Rose Tyler, that was brilliant!” He swept her up in his arms and hugged her tight. Her heart involuntarily sank that it wasn’t a passionate, searing kiss and she realized perhaps she wasn’t as annoyed at him as she thought.
“You could have at least told me!” She slapped at his arm, certain he hardly felt it through his coat. He laughed and leaned in. Her breathing grew harder and puffed out in wisps of frozen air in front of her.
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, you certainly did that. And what’s all this?” She gestured to the carriage, and the driver cleared his throat. John helped her in and followed her, draping a blanket over their laps.
“I just wanted our Valentine’s Day to be special. We’re always working on holidays and I thought…” He shrugged.
The “our” caught her ear, but he rambled on.
“I’ve been wanting to try out that illusion for a long time, but I needed the right moment and of course, I wanted to ask you, I’ve been wanting to ask you for ages, but I was waiting for the perfect timing and, well…” He scratched the back of his neck. “Do you like them?”
Keeping up with his train of thought was usually her greatest talent, but tonight she seemed to have a hard time following. He nodded down to the flowers she had forgotten she was holding.
“Oh! Yes. Yes, they’re lovely.” It came out more breathless than she had intended and against her sliver of indigence that he had pulled her into his show without consulting her, she took his hand with her free one. He wanted it to be a surprise, she reminded her last bit of annoyance. That bit quickly vanished as the carriage ride passed through the park where lovers strolled and the city’s heart-shaped fireworks exploded overhead.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, breaking a moment of awed silence. She giggled and teased him for thinking of food at a time like this. Men.
“Oi! What I’m trying to say is, I’ve made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, if you want.” He shrugged and she felt bad for teasing.
“Yes,” she squeezed his hand in emphasis. “Starving. That sounds perfect.”
The carriage stopped in front of their hotel. He rushed out of the carriage to help her down and then to the door to hold it open for her. His gentlemanly behavior was more than making up for his presumptiveness.
The front desk clerk was less charmed by his giddy persona. “You’re the last two here and your managers were the first to check in. Here’s your keys.” She slid over one envelope with two keycards inside.
John and Rose waited for the stocky, no-nonsense clerk to go on. The staring match only lasted a few seconds.
“Let me put this another way. You weren’t here to claim your own rooms when everyone else was. The circus company only reserved a certain number and with this room,” she slid the envelope closer to John and Rose across the counter, “that number has been met, and being that it is Valentine’s Day, we only have this one room left in the entire hotel. Here it is. Enjoy your stay.”
The clerk disappeared into her office, leaving John and Rose to blink at each other instead.
“So.” Rose inhaled and puffed out a breath. “Cupid’s got his arrow on us, huh?”
“Hm?” John’s voice went all squeaky.
“Oh, just that you know, first date, Valentine’s Day… hotel room.”
“Oh! Right! Rose, I swear, I won’t…” he fumbled for the right words, waving his hands around to illustrate, “we don’t… Not unless… I mean, no. Too early… we haven’t…”
“Haven’t even kissed,” Rose finished for him and winked. She picked up the keycards and sauntered away, knowing he would follow when his brain returned to him. If she was going to be handed her perfect Valentine’s Day on a platter, who was she to put up a fight?
When they opened the door, they realized why this room had been the last one left over: one bed. The few established couples of the circus had taken the other king beds, leaving the doubles to all be claimed by those not in inter-circus relationships. So one bed it was.
Rose looked at John and burst out laughing. He was just standing there, blinking at the bed.
“Oi, what’s so funny?” he insisted.
“You!” She sighed out the last of her giggles and draped her arms around his neck. “Moving too quickly for ya?”
“No, nope,” he shook his head. “Not at all.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Remember we’re here multiple nights.”
“Then there’s no pressure,” he countered. “Nothing has to happen tonight that we aren’t ready for.”
“Exactly.” She pecked his cheek and slid out of his hold on her hips. “You promised me dinner.”
“The reservation!” He looked down at his suit. Actually, since he had removed the cape after the show, he was already dressed for a nice dinner out. “Do you want to change or anything?”
“Gimme five minutes and I’ll be right out.” She grabbed her makeup bag from her luggage, which had been waiting for them in the room, and disappeared into the bathroom.
Dinner was perfectly romantic. So much so that it was making John nervous.
He put down his fork and straightened his posture before diving in. This was going to be an awkward hotel stay if she said no.
“Rose, I want to be clear about my intentions.”
She raised an eyebrow and swirled her wine in her glass. “It’s the night of Valentine’s Day, which so far has included magic, flowers, a carriage ride, fireworks, a posh dinner, and a shared hotel room. I think it’s pretty clear …”
“Oh! Yes, yes, that too.”
Her little frown told him that was the wrong answer.
“Wait! I mean, yes, you’re right, and the romantic elements of this evening are leading up to a bigger question I have to ask you.” He rushed the question out all at once, too nervous to play it cool. “Rose Tyler, would you want to do a double act with me?”
Her shock morphed into pleasant surprise into delight.
“Yes! I’d… oh my god. Is that allowed? Can we just… do it, just like that?” She peppered him with questions. “Are the managers alright with it? What would we even do?”
John sat back in his chair, more confident now that he knew she was on board. “They noticed my shows have been a bit repetitive. I told them I needed something fresh, a new start. They suggested an assistant.”
Rose shook her head, but before she could refuse, he jumped in.
“I told them no assistants, but how about a partner? Co-stars. They agreed but made me promise to hold auditions before our week off so whoever I picked would have time to think it over while we’re on holiday. But I didn’t need an audition. I knew it was you or no one.”
She blushed, but tried to hide it with a demure look away and back to him. “So tonight, when you pulled me on stage?”
“Yep, consider your audition passed with flying colors.” He beamed. “You’re the only one I want, Rose. When I’m all by my lonesome up there, it feels like a job, but when you’re with me, it’s… well, magic.”
She was smiling again, the twinkle in her eye betraying her casual tone. “Yeah, yeah, alright. Partners?”
He dipped his head in a gentlemanly nod. “Partners.”
They returned to their meal, though they were both too excited to be thinking much about food. She pushed her remaining dinner around her plate for a second before asking, “How long have you been planning this, anyway?”
John swallowed a bite. “Do you remember your lyra performance where you swung through the hoops as they turned and it looked like you all disappeared one by one until it was just you, then you flipped over and disappeared too?”
“The one to the song from the circus movie with the ropes?”
“Yeah, yeah, that duet with the Disney basketball kid. The point is, the song is about rewriting your destiny. Sooo, I thought, if you can do magic like that with your art, what if I were to design illusions specifically around your talents?”
“That was last summer. You’ve been designing illusions for me for six months? Half a year you’ve been thinking about this.” Her voice had softened into wonder for a minute, but then she remembered he had lied to her and scowled playfully at him. “Hey! You told me you hadn’t been thinking of anything new lately. You were stuck, creatively, and here I was trying to help you.”
He shrugged. “For myself, my show as it was? It was true! You’re very distracting.”
His smirk was begging to be kissed off his face. She leaned in, ready to offer a challenge she had every intention of following up on. “Oh, I’ll show you distracting.”
Speaking of distracting, before they could get too hot and bothered, the waiter came with the bill. They relaxed back into their seats as John handed over his credit card. With the waiter’s departure, their flirting and teasing faded away. Neither of them knew what to say or what would come next. Just as they each started to break the silence, the waiter returned. On autopilot, they retrieved their coats from the coat check and made their way out of the restaurant.
But neither of them knew where to go from there, so they just stood on the sidewalk.
“So.” Rose turned to John, who scratched his neck sheepishly.
“I have to confess, that was the end of the plan. I didn’t get much further than asking you about the show.” He glanced around the street for any ideas of what to do next.
“Well, we could just go back to the room, have a night in.” She tilted her head in the direction of the hotel.
“Yeah, getting late. Good thinking. You’re probably exhausted after everything today.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets as they began walking so he wouldn’t be too forward and take her hand in his.
“I didn’t just mean for sleeping, though we need to do that too,” she got out around a yawn.
John swallowed, wondering if doing, ahem, not sleeping was taking things too fast. She clarified though, looping her arm through his as they wandered back down the block to their hotel.
“Maybe before we go to sleep, if you’re not too tired, you can share some of your plans for this show with me? And, if it’s alright, I’ve got a few ideas of my own.”
Her big dark eyes filled with hope were too much for him. John stopped them in the street, just in front of another restaurant where a violinist was playing a soaring romantic melody.
“I’d love that,” he sighed, gazing down at her. “Your ideas are brilliant.”
“You haven’t even heard them yet,” she teased, eyeing his lips.
“Doesn’t matter, they always are.” He leaned down closer and closer. “You’re the best at ideas. Your ideas are—”
“Shut up and kiss me,” she whispered.
He happily complied.